With the every day stresses that we encounter in the Western world, it is to no surprise that up to 20% of us are suffering with IBS. The gut and the brain are more connected than we ever really considered, and an alarming amount of evidence is now surfacing, blaming our brains for our time spent on the bog. If you suffer from IBS, there is a way to alleviate your symptoms through dietary intervention, but a more effective solution could be very simple.
What is IBS?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a disorder that affects the large intestine. People with IBS often experience bloating and abdominal pain, as well as passing excessive and experiencing constipation, diarrhoea or a mixture of both. Unfortunately, this condition is more common than we originally thought, with rates reaching as many as 1 in 7 of us. Unfortunately, IBS is a chronic condition, meaning that long-term management is needed for people to manage their symptoms.
Note: If you experience any/ many of the symptoms previously mentioned, this does not necessarily mean you have IBS (self-diagnosis is a no-no!). If you do suspect gut issues, visit your doctor who may want to perform blood tests, pelvic ultrasounds, stool tests or a gastroscopy/colonoscopy to rule out any other other medical conditions first. This is because symptoms of IBS often overlap with other gut issues, such as inflammatory bowel disease and coeliac disease, which are treated differently.
Where does stress come into this?
Psychological stress is known to be a big contributor to the potential development of IBS and could also aggravate symptoms. In fact, there is mounting evidence suggesting that IBS is a combination of an irritable bowel and an irritable brain. The brain and the gut have this “secret” connection, so any signalling in one, can lead to responses in the other. The composition of bacteria in our gut (yes, our gut contains LIVE, active bacteria) and our brain function can be altered in response to stress. Hence, to effectively manage IBS, we really need to address the stress-factors in our lives and make appropriate diet and lifestyle changes. It may be worth exploring different ways of managing your stress, which could even help you out in so many other ways. Simple things like managing your time better, getting adequate sleep and making time for yourself to relax could be really effective. Cutting down on caffeine, nicotine and alcohol is key for optimum mental health, as well as engaging in enough physical activity. Maybe call up a close friend once in a while to just have a nice chat! In terms of diet, there is high-quality evidence highlighting that a low-FODMAP diet can really alleviate IBS symptoms, so if you are suffering from IBS then read on.
What are FODMAPs?
FODMAPs are a random collection of fermentable carbohydrates that are found in different foods. They move very slowly through our small intestine, attract water on the way and are fermented by our gut bacteria in the large intestine, producing large volumes of gas. This means we have extra water and gas in our gut, which might be why you are experiencing those IBS symptoms that are keeping you on the loo.
How does a low FODMAP diet work?
The low-FODMAP diet is a 3-step diet that helps IBS sufferers identify which FODMAP-containing foods they can tolerate and which to should avoid, as most people’s gut won’t be sensitive to all FODMAPs. This involves avoiding foods that are high in FODMAPs for 2 to 6 weeks (until symptoms have been relieved), and then reintroducing FODMAPs back over a 3-day period. During this time, portion sizes are increased gradually (for example, about ¼ of a clove of garlic to ½ clove). After than, a low-FODMAP diet is reintroduced for another 3 days, then trial of a different FODMAP may proceed. After all the different FODMAPs have been reintroduced, it should be clear what foods cause a flare-up or not, and the quantities that are tolerable. Note that this is not a fad diet, but a temporal means of relief for people with IBS, and you should not treat it as a life-long diet.
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* Please consult an accredited dietitian for more personalised advice.
IBS can be a huge strain on your day to day life, so it is worth going to your doctor to get a real diagnosis. Once you know what's going on, then you can explore your options for treatment. It really could be as simple as taking up a hobby to de-stress yourself and de-stress your gut. Otherwise, it would be advised to go and see a registered dietician or nutritionist who can give you a personal plan for a low FODMAP diet.
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This article was co-written by Jet Yee Ho and Nuna Kamhawi. Jet is a first year MSc Dietetics Studies student at The University of Queensland, Australia.